New circulation numbers likely to show Sunday strength, impact of paid digital

When the Audit Bureau of Circulations releases six-month newspaper circulation totals Tuesday, it will be the first opportunity in 18 months to make valid apples-to-apples comparisons.

A complicated set of new rules was put in place, beginning September 2010, so the period ending this March is comparable to the one that ended March 2011.

Thanks to reports from a number of publicly-traded companies, one key total is not much of a mystery: Look for paid print declines of about 5 percent daily and 1 percent Sunday.

McClatchy reported exactly that result for its 32 papers in an earnings report last week. The New York Times was down 5 percent daily but up 0.1 percent Sunday. The Boston Globe was down 9 percent daily but only 3 percent Sunday. Gannett reported its 80 community papers were down 3.5 percent daily and 3.4 percent Sunday.

Many papers are steering their readers to Sunday-only or partial week subscription plans since Sunday is by far the most valuable audience for advertisers. That has been bolstered by the offer of free digital access to those who subscribe to the Sunday paper, most notably at The New York Times. In effect, those who want a paid digital subscription can get Sunday print for free.

Of course, paid print circulation is not necessarily the dominant metric it was 10 years ago. As reports include various categories of paid digital and other new options, the new paid and verified total is harder to interpret and reflects differing audience strategies.

“I don’t have a clue what those numbers will look like,” John Murray, vice president for audience development at the Newspaper Association of America told me in a phone interview last week. “There are so many things now that newspapers can include or choose not to include.”

And for paid digital, Murray added, the totals may not be all that meaningful. Newspapers “don’t sell (ads) by the paid copy,” he said. Rather, monthly uniques, impressions and time on site are the metrics that ad buyers look for.

Other new options in the mix include:

  • Sunday-select products — packets of Sunday inserts only requested by households in certain ZIP codes, these can be counted as verified circulation.
  • Digital replica editions — an ads-and-all digital version reproducing the layout of the day’s print paper, popular with some readers and important in markets like Detroit where there is no home-delivered print edition on certain days of the week.
  • Branded editions — an option that allows companies to count titles in a single metro region as editions of one paper.  This has been used by MediaNews for its Los Angeles and San Francisco area clusters, by the Chicago Sun-Times and its suburban dailies and the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News. This maneuver earns each of the four a spot on the Top 25 list.

As if that is not complicated enough, with the assorted new digital pay plans being phased in quickly this year and last, matters get really complex. Tuesday’s reports will break out digital replica and non-digital replica paid circulation. The latter includes e-reader copies sold and paid subscriptions to websites.

What will not be apparent until more detailed publisher’s statements come out in roughly two months is whether papers are jumping on a liberal ABC rule allowing organizations to double or triple-count subscribers if they pay for access to one or multiple digital platforms.

Under a model widely used by small and mid-sized papers, a print subscriber can pay a small additional amount — one to three dollars a month — to get unlimited Web access. Those who take the offer can be counted twice as subscribers.

It is the same principle, I’ve been told, as if you are a seven-day print subscriber but get to the airport headed out of town and buy a print single copy or download a digital edition to an e-reader. For that day you are counted twice as a buyer.

There’s another variation. Under an all-access model, as practiced by The New York Times and other large papers, readers could also be counted multiple times if the organization goes to the trouble and expense of monitoring the number of times a given subscriber actually uses that platform.

Neal Lulofs, executive vice president of communications at ABC, said the possibility of an inflated count has raised concerns for ad buyers. He and Murray both said publishers may choose to avoid confusion by simply counting — once — the number of new digital subscriptions sold.

A new reporting requirement called “total consumer accounts” is in the works. Coming in the next six-month period report, it would allow ad buyers to see whether a given company is claiming many more subscribers than accounts, essentially a deflater if the claimed total seems padded.

Lulofs said ABC’s board is also revisiting what counts as “verified digital circulation.” That is access no one is paying for — such as free mobile phone or tablet apps or digital access to a cable company’s subscriber base.

ABC now also offers a premium service reflecting separate totals for multiple platforms, even including Twitter and Facebook. But each carries an extra auditing cost. “Momentum is building,” Lulofs said, but only about 40 or 50 (of the service’s 1,000 or so) clients have signed on so far.

The ABC changes, even if a few kinks remain, can be viewed as necessary modernization for the bureau to stay relevant in an era of multiple revenue streams and multiple distribution platforms.

ABC is the only game in town for audits, but both the bureau and Scarborough attempt to count total readers (rather than just paid copies). And in larger metros, Scarborough also measures unduplicated digital reach, a useful index of which companies best use new media for fuller market coverage.

Advertisers look at all these metrics. And newspaper companies have been aggressively raising print and single-copy prices, accepting some loss in volume in favor of higher revenue.

I agree with Murray that there is an irony in Tuesday’s results. Yes, the big numbers are back, along with valid ways to compare them year-to-year. But we have entered an era where the summary paid number means less to ad buyers, and ultimately to financial results; the details matter more.

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